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Drug-sniffing dogs are a law enforcement hoax, signaling drug alerts even when no drugs are present

A recent ruling by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has brought into question the ability and effectiveness of so-called "drug-sniffing dogs" after judges found that one animal in Illinois was not at all competent in the task he was supposedly trained to do.

The Free Thought Project and the Chicago Tribune, reported that Lex, a police dog from central Illinois, was at the center of a lawsuit filed by a St. Louis man who is currently serving 20 years in prison for drug possession. Larry Bentley Jr. claimed that the 20 kilos of cocaine Bloomington police found in his car during a traffic stop in 2010 was derived from an illegal search that was triggered by Lex.

Even though the 7th Circuit upheld Bentley's conviction, the larger question before the court was how much police should rely on their K9 partners to justify such searches when the animal's competence is in question, as was the case with Lex.

In a 15-page opinion, the court disparaged Lex and noted that if police had relied solely on Lex's questionable abilities, the suit might have been successful.

"Lex is lucky the Canine Training Institute doesn't calculate class rank," the opinion said. "If it did, Lex would have been at the bottom of his class."

"Not much better than a coin flip"

Nevertheless, Lex's trainer at the Bloomington-based dog training school strongly defended the ten-year-old Belgian Malinois following the court's decision.

"The opinion is unfair and very one-sided," Michael Bieser told the Chicago Tribune in a phone interview. He further noted that Lex, who is currently still on the job as a police K9, "is a very, very good dog."

The court's ruling has thrown the overall capability of such dogs into question. Bieser said that some really good drug-sniffing dogs might now be taken out of service over fears that their performance records will also be downgraded and criticized by subsequent courts.

The recent ruling highlighted records indicating that the dog almost always signals that drugs are present, doing so 93 percent of the time. Moreover, the court cited additional figures indicating that Lex is frequently wrong about drugs being present; this occurs approximately 40 percent of the time.

"Lex's overall accuracy rate ... is not much better than a coin flip," the ruling said.

Bieser countered that the dog's alert and false-positive rates while working are an inaccurate portrayal of capabilities because they do not factor in times that he detects residue from drugs or larger quantities that cops just aren't able to find. He said that Lex's success rates in the controlled tests that are part of the dog's certification requirements have been higher than 90 percent.

The Chicago Tribune further reported:

He conceded Lex did fail one controlled test during the evidence-gathering stage of Bentley's case, calling it an anomaly. As a result, Lex was pulled from service for a two-week refresher course.

"A terrible way to promote accurate detection"

The appeals court said that Bentley's conviction was upheld in large part because there were other indications at the traffic stop that police relied on, including contradictory statements he made. The court said that those statements justified the eventual search.

The opinion also noted that Lex's performance was very likely just above the minimum levels of acceptance as per criteria that has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, the judges remarked that some dogs that nearly always signal an "alert" for drugs might potentially give police a "pretext" to search cars they otherwise would have no cause to search.

"They also highlighted the practice of Lex's police handlers giving him a reward -- a toy hose stuffed with a sock -- each time he alerts, whether he's right or wrong about drugs, saying that 'seems like a terrible way to promote accurate detection,'" the ruling stated.

The practice has since been banned by the department, the Chicago Tribune reported.

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